Day 1 on the Camino Frances is around 24km and will take 7 to 9 hours if you walk it in one day. It is a tough day.
Saint Jean Pied de Port is a beautiful, bustling French market town in the foothills of the Pyrenees. The Pyrenees is a mountain range that creates a natural border between France and Spain. This is the traditional starting point for the Camino Frances (for all non-Spaniards who traditionally start at Roncesvalles). This is the most popular of all the Camino routes. That, however, makes the route very busy during the peak summer months of July and August. You can buy most last minute items, like a hat, sun cream, or hiking poles in Saint Jean at lafuma.com.
Before setting out, check the weather forecast in the pilgrim’s office at the top of the main street, 39 Rue de la Citadelle, web address below. They will also supply a pilgrim’s passport and information on the route ahead with an updated list of hostels. It is advisable to check for any last minute information. There is a tourist office close by at 14 Charles de Gaulle Place.
Saint Jean Pied du Port
All services, inc. bar, cafe, restaurant, bank, ATM, medical, pharmacy, shops, post office, etc.
Pilgrims Office and Municipal Hostel, 55 Rue de la Citadelle, €8, 32 beds, W, D, K, B, Tel: 559370509, Open all year. ( you’ll need Google to translate or understand French)
Beilari, private, 40 Rue de la Citadelle, €30, 18 beds, Half Board – Dinner, Bed & Breakfast, Bike, Tel: +33 (0) 55 93 72 468, Web: https://www.beilari.info/en/home/ Formally L’Espirit du Chemin. They will also provide a snack lunch for the next day for €4. Open March 15th to November 1st
Gite Ultreia, private, 8 Rue de la Citadelle, €16, 15 beds, W, D, B€5, @, Bike, Tel: +33 (0) 680884622, Web: https://www.ultreia64.fr/en/ Open April to Mid October. Double rooms at €44 and €48, triple room €60.
Maison Kaserna, private, 43 Rue d’Espagne, €15, 12 beds, W, D, M€11, Tel: +33 (0) 559376517
Le Chemin Vers L’Etoile, private, 21 Rue d’Espagne, €17, 18 beds, B&B, W, D, K, Bike, Tel: +33 (0) 559372071, Web: https://pelerinage-saint-jacques-compostelle.com/en/the-gite/ Open all year, but reservations required Nov to March
Refuge Esponda, private, 9,Rue du Trinquet, €14, 14 beds, K, W, Tel: +33 (0) 679075252
Auberge Compostella, private, 6 Route D’Arneguy, K, Tel: +33 (0) 559370236
Auberge Azkorria, private, 50 Rue de la Citadelle, €29 bed and breakfast, 8 beds, 3 rooms with bathrooms, TV, & breakfast €80/90, W, D, M, @, Tel: +33 (0) 559 937 0053 or 062 116 9476, Open all year. http://hebergements-pays-basque.fr/accueil/
There are two routes from Saint Jean to Roncesvalles: the Napoleon Route and the Valcarlos Route, also known as the road route. Both routes are roughly the same distance through the Valcarlos Route is less strenuous as it passes through the valley and the total meters climbed during the day is 400 less. The Napoleon Route can be treacherous during the winter or even spring due to snow and other hazardous weather conditions. At these times, it is recommended that pilgrims use the Valcarlos Route. The Valcarlos Route is suitable for all cyclists, whereas the Napoleon is only suitable for mountain bikes, and even then, it is difficult.
Napoleon Route (recommended)
The first day is the hardest of the whole Camino. It is the first day, and your body is probably not used to walking all day carrying a rucksack; if you have packed more than 10% of your body weight, you will feel the burden. However, your body will object to this extra encumbrance and begin the process of adapting. The route from Saint Jean is steep up quiet tarmac country lanes. You will climb from 200 meters above sea level to just above 1,400 meters, then descend steeply back down again into Roncesvalles at 900 meters, which can be hard going on your knees and shins.
It is advisable only to start the Napoleon Route if you have a full day ahead and leave early, as the expected walking time is between 7 and 9 hours. You could start halfway through the day if you have booked into Orrison, which is 8km out of Saint Jean.
To leave Saint Jean Pied de Port, walk down the beautiful old town main street and uphill through the old town gate. The Camino signs are impossible to miss, and unless you are walking mid-winter, there will be a steady stream of pilgrims in front and behind you. Have some food for snacks, and make sure your water bottle is full.
Take it easy. The Camino is not a sprint but a marathon to be enjoyed and savored. Although the walk up the Pyrenees is difficult, it is immensely rewarding. The peace and silence are a precursor of the times ahead on the Meseta. The views are stunning, and if you stay in Orrison overnight, it is worth getting up early, as the views in the morning sun are spectacular as you look down on the clouds floating below in the valleys.
In the first Pilgrim’s Guide, written by the French monk Aymeric Picaud in about 1130, he refers to Saint Jean Pied de Port as a place where evil tax collectors with clubs attack Pilgrims intending to collect extortionate taxes. A stark warning that a pilgrimage was not easy 900 years ago especially compared to our easy comforts today.
Orisson, bar/ cafe, water
Refuge Orisson, private, Orisson, €33, 18 beds, D, M, B, Bike, Tel: +33 (0) 559 491 303 Web: https://www.refuge-orisson.com/ Open March to Oct. Recommend booking in advance as it gets very busy.
After Orisson, you arrive at Biakorre where there is a statue of the Virgin. From here, the views stretch into the distance as far as Pic d’Aspe and the Somport Pass, where the Camino Aragones passes from France into Spain. This area once held a medieval pilgrims hostel of which nothing remains.
Approaching Roncesvalles, there is a choice of two paths. At this point, you will see the monastery below nestled in the valley surrounded by trees. One path goes straight down the hillside. It is steep and can be dangerous (an old Roman Road) – the other to the right is much easier and better underfoot but slightly longer. Both routes bring you out at the rear of the Collegiate Church in Roncesvalles.
Valcarlos Route for cyclists and adverse weather conditions
Turn right shortly after Porte d’Espagne, (Spanish Gate), and follow the signs along Chemins de Mayorga (D381).
Unlike the Napoleon route, the Valcarlos Route has only a gradual climb at the start from 200 to 400 meters at 17km. However, the ascent is steep to 900 meters over the last 7 kilometers.
The waymarking is not as clear on this route, and you will encounter more traffic, so more attention is required.
Valcarlos 12km, water, bar, cafe
Municipal Albergue, €10, 24 beds, W, D, K, @, Bike, Tel: 948 790 117 open all year. If it is closed when you arrive, ask at the bar for the key
Leaving Valcarlos, there is a choice of walking along the road (16km) or saving a few kilometers by following the Camino signs and walking up the Ibaneta Pass (12km). Ibaneta was the site of the Monastery of San Salvador; now, all that remains is a chapel and stone monument. During the winter or adverse weather conditions, the road is safer; however, this is the main route into Spain and, therefore, can be busy.
Roncesvalles, bar, cafe, hotels
Albergue de Peregrinos, Parochial, €10, 180 beds + overflow tents, W, D, K, @, V, Cred, Bike, Tel: 948 760 000 Web: all year.
One of the earliest pilgrim’s hospices was in Roncesvalles; however, no written evidence documents the hospice until 1127. It became one of the wealthiest Augustin Monasteries receiving endowments from all over Europe.
Within the monastery, the 13th century Collegiate Church holds a 13th century statue of the Virgin of Roncesvalles. The statue is made from wood covered with silver and was carved in Toulouse. Until the 18th century, the Virgin was kept behind a curtain and only shown to pilgrims after a ceremony. It is now located in the center of the altar.
The Chapter House, beside the cloister, contains Sancho VII the Strong’s tomb. At the foot of Sancho’s tomb lie the chains that imprisoned Christians he freed at Las Navas; Sancho brought the chains back after defeating the Moors, and the coat of arms of Navarre includes these chains.
The museum is only one large room, small by normal standards. Roncesvalles straddles two traditions: the pilgrimage to Santiago and the French epic traditions of Roland and Charlemagne. Inside the museum, a Gothic reliquary contains pieces of bones from more than thirty saints (Charlemagne’s Chessboard). (It was common to send parts of a saint to many different locations) Also on display are Roland’s Horn, Oliphant, and various Roland and Charlemagne historical pieces.
The 12th century Capilla de Sancti Spiritus is an ossuary with a modern altar. The bones are thought to be those of pilgrims that died crossing the mountains; it is also argued that the bones are those of Charlemagne’s army massacred nearby.
Whether you are religious or not, the evening service at Roncesvalles is worth attending for its pilgrim blessing.
Key: W = Washing, D = Drying, M = Menu, @ = Internet, K = Kitchen, B = Breakfast, V = Vending, Cred = Credential, Bike = Bike Storage
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This is an extract from some writings of mine at the time, I stopped at Orisson the first time I walked:
I paid €28 for my night in the Orisson, that was for diner and my bed in a small dorm. Okay price wise, but hell I thought if I had to pay every night like that. However this was the most expensive until I reached Santiago. The host in the Orisson was great, friendly, the whole place is run well and I recommend it.
The money was worth it. The views in the morning from the Orisson are great, looking down on smaller mountains, with the morning mist floating in the valleys.
It is about 14 or 15 km to Roncescalles, to me it felt so much more. But today it was not all up hill again. The views are just incredible, film like. I felt like I wanted to fall into the beauty of my surrounding and be swallowed up in peace.
Eagles and buzzards flew overhead. Eagles alone or in pairs, buzzards in packs. Sometimes they flew only 20 or 30 metres above me; and I could hear the noise of their wings as they soared through the sky, catching the morning thermals.
My feet hurt.
The walk down into Roncesvalles was hard on my knees. It is very steep going down, however the views down into the valley are somewhat distracting. Tonight my first taste of a real albergue.
I love hiking, backpacking, and camping. From the Camino de Santiago to the West Highland Way in Scotland or simply a great day hike on the weekend. Hiking refreshes me, my mind, and keeps my body reasonably fit. So far I have walked three Camino routes and many other long distance hikes in the UK, Canada, and around the rest of Europe. One of the best was my hike up Ben Nevis.